Jeff Branson – I remember that he was a ballplayer, but not much else about him really.
I was just a kid, probably eleven or twelve, when the young, Minor League shortstop of my hometown Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Reds caught my father’s eye from the aluminum stands on the third base side.
Our house was a short walk from Veteran’s Memorial Stadium and we never missed the chance to watch the local Class-A baseball team play on discount nights. “Quarter Beer Night” sticks out as a neighborhood favorite.
One such discount-ticket evening at the ballpark has forever etched Jeff Branson’s name into my mind.
We were sitting behind the Reds’ dugout when my dad nudged me.
“Tobe, you see him there? Look at the shortstop.”
My dad shaded his eyes from the sun and kept talking despite my lack of immediate attention. “He’s paying attention to the pitches – Branson’s looking at the signs from the catcher.”
I didn’t pay him much mind, but my father continued anyway, “If they throw away, he knows to shade the batter up the middle.”
I remember him motioning toward the young infielder, trying to distract my focus from the hitter at the plate.
My eyes naturally drifted back toward the flash of the big swinging clean-up hitter – ignoring the nuances that my dad was trying to teach me.
I was still only half-listening as my father continued, “You see, he’s the captain of the infield – getting everyone else lined up, too. Jeff Branson, he’s a player.”
Now, thirty years later, I cherish this memory from my viewpoint as a father of five.
I yearn for simpler times, like that night with my dad, with my own family – nights spent together in a cheap, grandstand seat enjoying the sunshine and each other’s company.
That memory is why Minor League Baseball matters – and not just to a sports nut like me.
The games turn back the clock. Minor League ballparks provide a sanctuary to trade technology for a few hours of conversation and smiles.
For nine innings, or, for as long as my 1 year-old will sit still, it’s just us.
We’ll jump at the crack of the bat and be transfixed by the echo of the thud of the catcher’s mitt.
I’ll laugh as my children confirm their baseball ignorance through silly questions like, “Daddy, could the REAL Yankees beat the Tampa ones?” and, “How many ‘endings’ are there in a game, Dad?”
I’m in search of my own “Jeff Branson” memories and, I fear, I’m running out of opportunities to create them. Like many families, we have so much to do – homework, S.T.E.M., band, dance, art club and endless sports seasons.
Lost in our everyday hustle, is uninterrupted time together.
I plan to change that – at least, temporarily.
For a few weeks this summer, our fast pace slows as we travel home through Minor League Baseball – on an expedition called The Round Tripper.
I set out on this journey with the heart of a baseball romantic but the head of a parent admittedly terrified at the prospect of stuffing 5 kids under 11 into a van toward a long, cramped and uncertain course.
When I need reassurance, though, I’ll call upon the memory that Jeff Branson provided to me so many years ago.
That name and the recollection of those moments with my dad will carry me onward with my kids.
That is that inspiration for The Round Tripper.
Our trip is about more than baseball.
And, the journey is not really about us – it’s about any parent and any family aspiring to reconnect.
All are welcome on this trek. So, please, come along.
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